St. Robert Southwell

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St. Robert Southwell’s complete poems from Wikimedia Commons

St. Robert Southwell

Jesuit Poet and Martyr (ca. 1561–1595)

In the late sixteenth century, Jesuit missionaries spanned the globe, facing every type of peril. Yet for English Jesuits there was nowhere that they faced any greater danger than when they traveled in their own country—England under the reign of Queen Elizabeth. Still, despite persecution, a Catholic remnant in England remained, sustained by a network of underground priests and a stream of missionaries smuggled in from the Continent.

Robert Southwell was born in Norfolk and studied at the English college in Douai, France. At eighteen, he was accepted by the Jesuits. Five years later he stole into England and embarked on a clandestine ministry that lasted six years. During this time, he achieved both notoriety and literary fame through the publication of religious poems and a number of tracts defending the loyalty of his fellow Catholics. In his poem “The Burning Babe,” he described a vision, on Christmas Day, of a “pretty Babe all burning bright,” whose “faultless breast” burns for love of the world.

His capture was inevitable. For three years he was held without charge in the Tower, repeatedly subjected to torture. Eventually he was tried and sentenced to death. Before mounting the gallows he addressed the crowd: “I am come hither to play out the last act of this poor life. . . .” Quoting St. Paul, he said, “Whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord.”

“Not where I breathe, but where I love, I live; / Not where I love, but where I am, I die.” —St. Robert Southwell

© Liturgical Press.

Robert Ellsberg

Robert Ellsberg is the publisher and editor-in-chief of Orbis Books and the author of several award-winning books, including All Saints: Daily Reflections on Saints, Prophets, and Witnesses for Our Time; Blessed Among All Women; and The Saints' Guide to Happiness.

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